On this date in 1944, Richard Leakey was born in Nairobi, Kenya, to the famous archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey. As a child, Leakey accompanied his family on archaeological expeditions, and discovered his first fossil when he was five years old. After dropping out of high school when he was 16, Leakey entertained various careers such as leading safaris, but ultimately chose to follow in his parents’ footsteps, becoming an accomplished paleoanthropologist. His achievements include finding the full skeleton of a 1.6 million-year-old Homo erectus, as well as co-discovering the “Black Skull,” the earliest australopithecine fossil discovered to date. He has written numerous books including Origins, co-written with Roger Lewin (1977) and Making of Mankind (1981). In 1965, Leakey married archaeologist Margaret Cropper. They divorced in 1969 after having a daughter, Anna. He married zoologist Meave Epps in 1970 and they have two children: Louise, also a paleoanthropologist, and Samira.
Leakey is a self-described atheist and an advocate for evolution education. “I think ‘intelligent design’ is a rather shallow—and I would say unintelligent—attempt to pull wool over the eyes of the masses . . . you don’t need to make something up when there is a perfectly good scientific explanation for life,” Leakey said in a June 21, 2007 interview with the Academy of Achievement. In a 2010 interview with Richard Dawkins for the documentary “The Genius of Charles Darwin” (2008), Leakey said, “Surely, [evolution] should be the pride and joy of African leaders. But the faith brigade, whether they’re evangelical Christians, whether they’re conservative Catholics, whether they’re Islamic fundamentalists, are quite worried about this concept and are trying desperately to persuade ongoing future generations to have nothing to do with it. And in the process, [they] are putting people off science, putting people off the scientific method, putting people off the possibility of accepting facts.”
“I didn’t ever have religion,” Leakey said during his June 21, 2007 interview with the Academy of Achievement. Since Leakey’s uncle was the Anglican Archbishop of East Africa, Leakey’s family, friends and teachers—who often prevented Leakey from attending classes due to his frequent irreligious comments—were critical of his atheism. However, early attempts to convert Leakey only strengthened his atheism and disdain for organized religion. Leakey wrote in Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human (1993): “I came to be critical of formal religion, particularly of the damage that missionaries were doing to the culture of the people of Kenya. I had no difficulty in accepting the notion that standards of ethics and morality could be derived in the absence of religion. And I now believe that such standards are an inevitable—and predictable—product of human evolution.”